The Risks of Reclaimed Wood

Railroad ties, palettes, old planks pried from forgotten farmhouses: These are the stuff Pinterest dreams are made of, the eye candy of people who love a warm, rustic look. What with all its rich-toned, old-timey, perfectly imperfect character, reclaimed wood has maintained high popularity for so long, we’re pretty sure it’s here to stay. It’s proven irresistible to furniture sellers, home builders, home remodelers, and home-improvement do-it-yourselfers. It’s definitely beautiful, but…

Brunsell - Reclaimed Lumber

Can I interest you in a side of insect droppings?

So much reclaimed wood contains stuff you really don’t want in your house, let alone entrenched in a surface where you and yours eat. From adhesives to insecticides to lead, reclaimed wood provides safe harbor to all sorts of things you can’t see with the naked eye. And it’s not just chemicals that should concern you. For example, insects may live in the wood, where you can’t simply sand them away. If they aren’t there, chances are they’ve been killed off with insecticides.

But I washed and sanded it!

A quick Internet search yields tutorials galore about how to prep reclaimed wood for its new life. The upshot: scrub the wood, plug your ears, protect your eyes, shield your airways, and grab a sander. Maybe you’ll need a planer. Depends on the project. But in the end, it all sounds so very easy. That’s code for too good to be true. This is especially so when it comes to palettes. Getting wind of these dangers from us, a company that peddles lumber, may cause eye-rolls. But even those who embrace the use of reclaimed wood tell the same tale:

“There’s no real way to know if you are taking care of all of the bad stuff, so it’s best not to use pallet wood for projects used near food or the kiddos. Some folks won’t even bring it in the house, and reserve this type of wood for outdoor furniture.”

–From a blog appearing on

So, does this mean people shouldn’t use it at all?

No, just proceed with caution. Here are a few things you can do to increase the safety:

  • Know the source of the wood, which can clue you into what might have happened to the wood in its previous life. For example, grocery store palettes are likely to have been in close contact with food, so they run a higher risk of having bacteria (from spills), so don’t use them indoors. Doing a little background check, or buying from someone who’s assured you all’s well, isn’t a guarantee the wood is mold-free, chemical-free, insect-free, etc. The odds are just better.
  • Know if and how the wood’s been treated. Heat-treated wood, also known as kiln-dried wood, is generally marked with an “HT.” In terms of your health, HT wood is preferable to chemically treated wood. You forgo the chemicals, and the heating kills off bugs.
  • Consider how the wood will be used. Got a teething toddler or puppy? You don’t want to build that coffee table out of reclaimed wood, just in case. Building a raised-bed garden? Chemicals in the reclaimed wood can seep into your soil that feeds your veggies.

Consider your alternatives.

There are plenty of new woods that can be used to create a rustic feel. There are also ways to give new wood a distressed look that closely approximates the look of reclaimed wood. If you absolutely have your heart set on some true-blue reclaimed wood, think long and hard about where and how you’re going to use it, and err on the side of caution.